Sunday, February 11, 2007

Portland!!

If you wish to be treated with kindness, support, and compassion, you could do worse than pass some time on the campuses of Portland Community College in Oregon. I spent the last few days there, giving three talks to the faculty on academic freedom (talks I will make available soon), and I flew back east with an impression of competence and genuine concern for education on the part of faculty and staff.

In The New York Times today (subscription) is a story about the University of Phoenix, stating that students there "complained of instructional shortcuts, unqualified professors and recruiting abuses." You won't find the same at PCC, though it is a large school of three campuses and nearly 90,000 students. Why not? In part because the faculty is composed of dedicated, involved professionals supported by administrators who understand that education on a business model does not serve the best interests of the students.

Many people mistake academic freedom as something that exists, where it does (and not, I might add, at the University of Phoenix), simply as a privilege for the faculty. Well, no. Though, it is not a "right" of the students (their rights are covered under freedom-of-expression precepts and specific guarantees within university governance umbrellas), it serves the students, as the case of the University of Phoenix makes clear.

Academic freedom forces something of a horizontal structure on universities, colleges, and community colleges that operate under its guidelines. A vertical, or top-down, model cannot work where academic freedom is genuinely protected, for faculty self-governance is one of its basic points. It keeps a business model, such as that of the University of Phoenix, from undercutting the needs of education in favor of the needs of profits, for the stockholder cannot trump the faculty (or, for that matter, the students) when real academic freedom is enforced.

Each of the three PCC campuses is different, reflecting not only the differing geographies of the campuses, but the differing student bodies. Protected from the streamlining that a business model can demand (and, so far, from Secretary of Education Margaret Spelling's desire to dumb-down education into a cookie-cutter model), the faculty on each campus can concentrate on the needs of the particular community rather than simply on replicating something drawn up someplace else.

The enriched education provided at an institution like PCC will never be reproduced within a business structure where faculty are simply employees and students just customers. A few years ago, I taught part-time for another of the for-profit colleges--if "taught" can even be used for what I was doing. The company didn't even call us teachers, but "facilitators." We operated within lock-step syllabi that took neither the strengths of the particular facilitator nor the needs of the individual students into consideration. There was no room for the spontaneity or flexibility that makes education effective. The students were being short-changed: they thought they were buying a real college education when all they were getting was cheap "credits" and suspect "degrees." Certainly, they weren't coming away with the learning that students at a place like PCC can attain.

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